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Here are 5 Ideas to Better Accommodate Adults with Sensory Processing Differences in the Community

By Fraser Sensory Supports and Training Manager Gina Brady and Pam Dewey • sensory accommodations for adults, sensory tools, sensory friendly, sensory accommodations, inclusivity, sensory friendly environment, sensory friendly events for adults, inclusion, sensory tools for autism, sensory tools for adults, sensory sensitivity, autism, autism spectrum, neurodiversity, neurodivergent • November 10, 2022

We all respond to sensory information differently. Maybe you find loud music overwhelming or can’t stand the feeling of wool sweaters. Sensory processing differences are common in people with autism, but also occur in people with anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For these people, sensory overload can cause extreme discomfort. They may find loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, crowds or other sensory input completely overwhelming.

More people are becoming aware of sensory issues, and businesses have started to follow suit with accommodations for their guests. However, too often, these accommodations are geared toward children. Adults can have life experiences such as anxiety, PTSD, dementia or a traumatic brain injury that result in new sensory sensitivities in their lives.

Widespread and accessible adult sensory accommodations can help these individuals participate more fully in life. Here are 5 ideas to better accommodate adults with sensory processing differences in the community.

Make the office more sensory-friendly

For those with sensory sensitivities, overhead fluorescent office lighting can be too bright, and the buzzing sound it emits can be overwhelming. Employees should be encouraged to turn off overhead lights and use lamps or natural lighting, where possible. When that’s not possible, consider approaching your facilities team about adding fluorescent light covers or switching to incandescent lights in your area.

Some employees may be overstimulated by background noise. A cubicle office setup can be particularly problematic because partial walls introduce competing noises from different areas, which can be overwhelming for individuals with sensory differences. Permit employees to wear noise-canceling or regular headphones while working. If your office space is outfitted with cubicles, consider adding a sensory or calming space for employees to use when they need a break.

Many offices have also moved to fragrance-free environments. This eliminates strong scents, which might be too much for people with sensory sensitivities.

If you’re not sure how to accommodate employees, ask your staff. An anonymous survey ensures that staff feels comfortable making requests that support them.

Plan outings that accommodate a friend’s sensory processing differences

If you have a friend with sensory processing differences, consider their sensitivities when you make plans.  

“I’ve had adults tell me it feels like so much planning has to happen before the event, that sometimes they’re too exhausted to actually attend. For example, if they’re going somewhere new, they might choose to drive there ahead of time, so they know the route and how long it takes to get there, what the parking situation is like, and what the outside of the building looks like, to decide whether it will be a good experience for them,” says Fraser Sensory CertifiedTM Supports and Program Training Manager Gina Brady. “This is all extra planning outside of what goes into the actual experience itself, so it’s understandable how exhausting that must be.”

For dinner out, consider whether the restaurant is loud, has bright lighting or is usually crowded. If the venue is generally busy and noisy, schedule your visit for a day or time that’s less busy, or consider going to a less crowded place to eat. If it’s a new restaurant for your friend, send them pictures of the interior and exterior from the business’s website or social media. This helps your friend prepare and know what to expect.

When planning an outing, know that there are Twin Cities’ events, malls, performances, exhibits and more that offer sensory accommodations for guests. These events are posted on organizations’ websites and often appear on promotional materials. Feel free to call a venue to ask whether they offer an experience for sensory processing differences.

Several local sports teams have sensory accommodations for people of all ages. Fraser has sensory support staff at the 3M Sensory Room at U.S. Bank Stadium during Vikings home games. Fraser also partnered with the Minnesota United in 2022 to provide free sensory kits at Allianz Field during games. You can also check out the UnitedHealthcare Sensory Suite at Target Field. Fraser worked with the Minnesota Twins and UnitedHealthcare in 2022 to provide consultation, customer service training, and sensory support staff for the space.

The Guthrie Theater offers relaxed performances to accommodate patrons with sensory and vestibular sensitivities, anxiety, dementia, autism spectrum disorders, learning differences and/or other challenges attending the theater.” The Walker Art Museum hosts sensory-friendly Sundays once a month, which allow “visitors to enjoy the museum in a calm environment with accommodations such as quiet spaces, fidgets and sunglasses available.”

Add social narratives, videos or photos to your website

Businesses and organizations can better accommodate adults with sensory processing differences by providing more information about what it looks like inside their space. Photos of the interior, parking lot and even information about busy times can be helpful to people with sensory sensitivities.

Visual or social narratives, which are step-by-step narratives with pictures describing what a guest can expect when they go to a particular establishment, are also helpful. Here is a social narrative from the Guthrie Theater. You can also create your own social narrative.

Publicize information about accessibility and adaptions

Your business or organization may already have accessibility accommodations. But if your potential customers or guests don’t know about the accommodations, they won’t assume these exist. Highlight these adaptions in an easy-to-find place on your website and social media. If you’re planning an event, include accommodation information in promotions about your event. People with sensory processing differences are more likely to attend an event if they know there is a quiet space to take a break in, or to support your business if they know it offers adaptive workout equipment, like the University of Minnesota Recreation Center.

Offer special shopping hours

During the beginning of the pandemic, grocery stores offered special shopping hours for older or immunocompromised customers. Brady says she would love if all kinds of stores would offer “quiet hours” for neurodivergent people and adults with sensory needs. While this isn’t something she has seen happen yet, Brady says she would be happy to partner with any business interested in trying this accommodation.

You can better support adults with sensory processing differences by making the office more sensory-friendly, planning outings with sensory accommodations, adding social narratives and photos to a business website, publicizing information about adaptions and considering offering special shopping hours.